A livid humanoid bird charges towards Ghat. He absorbs a few attacks, then retaliates with a one-two punch-kick combination of his own. His enemy stunned, he uses this brief window to take stock. Picking up a five-foot bone club, he approaches the aggressor from behind, draws back his newly acquired best friend and swings wildly. Beak boy is hurled twenty yards through the air and lands in a pit, unmoving. Ghat stands above, recovering, and turfs the splintered handle of the weapon down beside the body. Phew, it’s over.
Suddenly, what was previously a wall is obliterated by a rampant bipedal elephant. Here we go again.
This is just one of the ways in which a fight in Zeno Clash can unfold, and it’s a credit to the strength of its melee combat system that near endless possibilities exist as to the sequence of events in any given encounter. What initially seems a simple collection of moves becomes a realistically grounded fighting mechanic with just enough depth for sustained bouts, if never quite reaching the combo binge excess evident in the Tekken series.
The stripped down, two button offence works a treat, and various marriages with blocking and movement add another dimension to the basic one-on-one scraps. Each brawl feels weighty, and there’s a tangible gravity to the characters and their surroundings. Stringing together moves also has a superb fluidity, with strikes coming across less akin to the click of a button and more in line with the mighty force of a clenched fist making contact with soft flesh. This is down to the way every blow is accompanied by a crucial clout in audiovisual terms, rendering each move a vitally important one in the course of battle. It’s not restricted to just the player’s efforts, however; any time the enemy scores a hit the motion blur and cries of anguish kick in, more often than not provoking some real life wincing.
The Tekken reference was no coincidence, for in many respects Zeno Clash apes the two dimensional fighters of old. Slide in panels of the combatants’ faces appear before each fight, teasing what will unfold. The arenas are small and restrictive, spacious enough for one to freely create combinations but sensibly restrained to prevent cheap hit and run tactics. The game features extensive – to the point of essential – use of blocking. Counters become almost as instinctive as breathing. The system is singularly geared to one-on-one.
That final point is an important one. So highly concentrated are the borrowed constituents from the fighting genre, when there are more than perhaps a couple of enemies to deal with at once, Zeno Clash can become frustrating. Being assaulted from all angles wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem in any game – we’re used to it – but the lock-on system tells a different story; it’s highly effective against individuals, but the instant more enemies arrive at the scene it becomes an incalculably large disadvantage. When Ghat is down, he can be harmed again, and if there are opponents attacking from everywhere unfair deaths are never far away. Couple this with the overzealous auto-lock and defiantly unintuitive method of exiting from the mechanic, the game’s often obtuse difficulty can move from the reasonable to unjust.
Multiple enemies become less of an issue in the bigger arenas, however it is arguably the over saturation of foes more than the occasional reliance on firearms that distracts Zeno Clash from its goal of unadulterated and unabashedly old-school arcade thuggery against single opponents. Unfortunately, these variations on the formula are what hold interest to the conclusion, and ACE Team finds themselves in something of a Catch 22 – relentless bouts against lone AI would become tiresome, but any attempts to deviate from this come off as weak links in the chain.
That said, there’s still plenty to love about the package as a whole. A genuinely involving storyline and surprisingly strong script and voice work add a familiar and appreciable human quality to the consciously narrow cast of characters, with the antagonist in particular a pitiful and vulnerable creature. Part of this is undoubtedly achieved, however, through the sublime visuals. Make no mistake about it, they’re incredible.
Zenozoik is a beautiful place, wrapping Aztec imagery in Steampunk detail and tying all the elements together with a distinct Discworld air. Its dreamlike and colourful environments burst with a unique verve and style, perfectly drawing in a range of similarly diverse inhabitants. Rarely are the intricacies of what are effectively peripheral techniques praised in games, but the astonishing use of depth of field contributes incalculably to the idiosyncrasy of the aesthetic. ACE Team’s Chilean roots are certainly in evidence, and it’s refreshing to have someone producing games from an entirely different corner of the planet so different influences can be explored. Additionally, the juice they’ve wrung from the ageing Source engine is admirable, and in technical terms, it’s certainly the nicest looking game produced with that toolset.
Zeno Clash is a marvel, channelling yesterday’s hardcore brawlers whilst maintaining modern sensibilities. It’s hardly flawless and can feel too limited at times, but ACE Team have created a universe and gameplay system ripe for further exploration, and for that alone it is worth experiencing.